Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Book of Negroes on BET

If it takes Black History Month to spark excellence on BET (Black Entertainment Network), so be it. I am talking about that station's airing this week of The Book of Negroes, the three-part miniseries based on the award-winning 2007 novel of the same name by Canadian author Lawrence Hill (which was originally published as Someone Knows My Name in the US, and rereleased under its original name this past January). Co-written by Hill and Jamaican-Canadian director Clement Virgo, and produced by Guyanese-Canadian Damon D'Oliveira and Virgo, the miniseries, original in six parts, initially premiered on Canadian Broadcast Channel TV in January, and was, to my mind, not just compelling TV, but utterly perfect in its historical and diasporic dimensions for Black History Month.

Aminata Diallo (Aunjanue Ellis),
speaking to abolitionists in London
The series, and Hill's novel, draw from the historical Book of Negroes, which the British Army, after its defeat in the US Revolutionary War, compiled as a means of documenting which people of African descent, many of them enslaved, had escaped to the British lines and aided its war effort. Those who could vouch for their contributions and who had no standing claims as chattel nor debtors were guaranteed their freedom and passage to Nova Scotia. Some 3,000 people qualified. In Hill's novel, which fictionalizes and reshapes the story, an enslaved woman, named Aminata (later Meena) Diallo and raised in the Muslim faith, from Segou in what is now Guinea, plays the central role in recording the names, later going on to testify before a select committee of British legislators in order to help end the British Slave Trade.

Aunjanue Ellis
In fact, the novel and miniseries center on Aminata's experiences. When we first see her, she is a child (Shailyn Pierre-Dixon) with her parents in Africa. Shortly thereafter, after hearing a djeli, or traditional storyteller, she is captured by slavers, assisted by a young native, Chekura Tiano (Siya Xaba), and on the slave ship, we see the early sparks of her lifelong as she provides the means for a near slave rebellion, which is violently quelled. Aminata and Chekura survive the Middle Passage, and she ends up on a South Carolina plantation owned by the lecherous Robertson Appleby (Greg Bryk). Here, as elsewhere, Aminata/Meena never forgets her family, Africa or her past; now into early womanhood (and played with aplomb and fearlessness throughout by Aunjanue Ellis), she befriends one of the older enslaved women, Bertilda (Cara Ricketts), who serves as a surrogate mother, and reconnects with Chekura (now the strapping, handsome Lyriq Bent), who manages to make infrequent nocturnal trips to see her, and uses the fishnet (or "slave grapevine," an effective proto-telecommunications system) to keep abreast of what she is up to.
Aminata in revolutionary New York
Much of this early portion of the story unsurprisingly parallels the usual depictions of plantation slavery, though Virgo's direction is assured throughout; a vile master, the hardships of the enslaved people, punishment for defiance. In Aminata's case, her relationship with and pregnancy by Chekura, whom she marries without the permission of and in defiance of her master Appleby, leads him to sell off her daughter May to unknown owners and eventually her to Solomon Lindo (Allan Hawco), a Jewish trader who becomes the witting and unwitting catalyst for Aminata's liberation. Witting, because his wife Rosa (Amy Louise Wilson), fosters the multilingual, perspicuous Aminata's skill at reading and writing. Unwitting because after Rosa's and the Lindo's child death from smallpox (and here, we get a strange moment of present-day irony because Bertilda had innoculated Aminata so as to protect her from the pox's ravages), Solomon takes her to New York, where she will serve and assist him in his business affairs.

The trip coincides with the stirrings of the Revolution, though Aminata's taste of freedom begins when she encounters free black people, including free black tavern keeper Sam Fraunces (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), who is smitten with her. (The depiction of Black Sam, both in Hill's book and the miniseries, takes some liberties, but some contemporaneous accounts apparently did describe Black Sam as a "mulatto" or mixed race person.) Aminata flees to precarious freedom among the city's black encampment while Solomon heads back to South Carolina, and Chekura, having learned of her whereabouts, finds her in the City. He also volunteers for the British side, as does she as an aide to Captain John Clarkson (Ben Chaplin). This creates the conditions for their unqualified freedom and her role as the author of the official Book of Negroes.
Aminata and Chekura Tiano (Lyriq
Bent), in Nova Scotia
To give just a bit more of the plot, Aminata and Chekura find themselves separated when authorities prevent her from boarding the ship bound for Nova Scotia because of a standing claim on her--but not by Solomon. It is Robertson Appleby, instead, who tries to game the law and gain control of Aminata before she can get away. Miraculously, Sam Fraunces produces (!) Solomon, her former owner, and countermands the claim, in the process and in court manumitting Aminata, though she tempers his heroic gesture by reminding him that she cannot forgive his role in selling off her infant daughter May. In Birchtown, the black settlement in Nova Scotia, Aminata emerges one of its leaders alongside preacher Daddy Moses (Louis Gossett, Jr.), but the economic and social conditions for the newly arrived black population remain shaky before they find themselves at the hands of rioting whites who blame for the loss of jobs and other privations.
Cuba Gooding Jr., who
plays tavernkeeper Sam Fraunces
The British have set up a colony in Africa, Sierra Leone, which Aminata and Chekura and nearly 1,000 other blacks from Canada will head to, together, and while there, in addition to helping to establish Freetown, the capital city, she hopes to see her native village again. As it turns out, Chekura is able to redeem his participation in their enslavement, though with tragic consequences; Aminata does find another village mirroring her native one, which may no longer exist; and she ends up, in her final chapter, moving to London to assist Captain Clarkson. It is there that she pens her own autobiography, despite the disbelief of her white abolitionist supporters and opponents (reminiscent of Phillis Wheatley's attestation), which with her testimony will play a key role in ending Britain's participation in the slave trade. There is a final, moving and lovely twist, which exists in both the novel and miniseries, and which the story certainly earns.
One of the actors during
a Revolutionary War scene
There are moments of anachronism throughout the series; at one point I felt, based on the dialogue in revolutionary New York and in Nova Scotia, as if I were watching a mashup of MTV and 1776; at another, at the very end, when Aminata participates in an outdoor public book-signing, which might have been possible though it seemed unlikely from a historical standpoint, it took me momentarily out of the story. All of the enslaved and free men are a bit too buff (a fact I am not really complaining about). In addition, though the screenplay mostly avoids sentimentality, but it does crop up at points, such as when Aminata and Chekura reunite in New York, but I chalked this up to the demands of portraying a story of such complexity that a little shorthand was necessary and not worthy of a quibble.

What works throughout is Aunjanue Ellis's characterization of Aminata. She fully inhabits this visionary figure of resistance, showing vulnerability when required but also conveying an inner fortitude that would have made possible the vast journey she traveled. Lyriq Bent also is strong as Chekura, and though he has less to do and say throughout, he succeeds in embodying the sort of man who could steal through the night, despite all obstacles, to be with her, and who is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to atone for actions he could not have fully understood in his youth. Veteran actor Jane Alexander exudes the right combination of liberalism and racism in her depiction of Nova Scotian printer Mary Witherspoon, while Louis Gossett, Jr., as Daddy Moses, radiates joy in his role. I could not, however, stop thinking that I was watching Cuba Gooding, Jr., as opposed to Fraunces, but accepting this I was able to enjoy his scenes. This was true too for some of the secondary actors, who were uneven, but a few, like Matt Ward as Jason Wood, and Stephan James as Cummings Shakspear, endowed their characters with vivacity and gravity. All in all, I was impressed with the rich cast of mostly black Canadian and South African actors, and now want to see them--along with their African American, British, and Afro-Latin peers--much more frequently on screens, large and small.
Lyriq Bent
Other aspects of the miniseries are even stronger. The adapted screenplay transforms the novelistic material in appropriate ways, while also never faltering in its ability to properly and effectively depict expressions of black solidarity, love, and, between Aminata and Chekura, eros and tenderness. Another pinnacle is the cinematography. From start to finish, though it occurred primarily in Cape Town, South Africa and Nova Scotia, it sensorially and visually anchors each scene, whether the grim edged pastoral of Appleby's plantation; the frenetic (though perhaps far too clean) streets of revolutionary New York; and the chilly, snow-doilied hills of Birchtown and Nova Scotia. Even the period interiors, if sometimes too sumptuous when depicting the enslaved people's quarters, place viewers firmly in a past time and space. In terms of pacing, the series never lags. Each two hour installation races by--and around BET's sally of ads. I could easily have stood several more nights of this fascinating tale, though that would have gone beyond the novel's and story's scopes.

As entertainment, The Book of Negroes is a triumph, but it also succeeds in its efforts to highlight a still too-little known aspect of American, African American and African Diasporic history. In essence, it presents the history of black Loyalists, who had everything at stake by agreeing to support the British. It also shines a light on the contributions of a black woman who was unwilling every to cede her agency if she could help it, and in so doing, helped to change one of the most abominable systems that has gripped the globe. The novel and miniseries succeed in their efforts to present a fuller social and political economy of the slave trade, of black resistance and freedom, and of a feminist perspective on our histories--and herstories. I recommend, and will say don't forget the popcorn and the tissues for the tears that may come along the way, before you get to cheer at how this particular story does end on a high note.

For more about The Book of Negroes' historical facts and context, BET even has an iPhone/Android app!

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